What Are Universities for?

What Are Universities For?
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Stefan Collini. February Find this book:. His recent essays in the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books were widely praised for skewering government proposals for their incoherence and inconsistency, and echoed what many academics had felt but been unwilling to say. Collini never really answers the question of what universities are actually for, but follows the question in a number of interesting directions. The volume is split into two parts.


Across the world, universities are more numerous than they have ever been, yet at the same time there is unprecedented confusion about their purpose and. At the time, he had just been appointed master of University College, The title of the lecture – “The Nature and Purpose of a University” – was.

The first is more reflective whilst the second is more rhetorical, reprinting updated versions of a number of his earlier public outings. The fundamental argument in both parts is that universities have marginalised their humanities activities because of a drive to demonstrate their value to society.

The humanities are distinctive because they individually can appear to be dilettante obsessions. And what is true for humanities is also true more generally for most kinds of non-vocationally focused higher education.

Related universities

So the paradox is that the people who have made the case for universities being useful have not been able to fully grasp that certain subjects are useful, but that their use is not their justification. The institution of a university produces useful outcomes, but the point of that institution is not those useful outcomes. The problem with recent policy is that it has mistakenly assumed that this to be true. The effects have been profound for higher education as a whole.

To try and make good this problem, Collini argues that one cannot start from arguments about use. A town could not be built without them, there would be no settling, no travelling. But they are not required at the council, they do not hold high rank in the assembly. They do not sit on the judicial bench, and have no grasp of law. They are not remarkable for culture or sound judgment, and are not found among the inventors of maxims.

Except in the case of doctors, the medieval university seems to have forgotten this piece of biblical wisdom. And it was only in the post-Reformation, Lutheranised, modern period that the technical sciences began to find a proper home in higher education. So in the midth century, the industrialised cities of northern England began to sprout university colleges with close links to local industries.

What are universities for? A geographical perspective

For example, the University of Leeds was heavily oriented to the research and training needs of the textile industry until it was decimated in the s. Universities have never been simply ivory towers. And they have no need to apologise for that. After all, the notion of human beings losing sleep, missing meals, even risking their lives in pursuit of the truth, or in defence of it, is a perfectly familiar one. But some truths are surely rather less valuable than others. There is a truth about the number of times that the surname Biggar appears in the Birmingham telephone directory and not even I can muster a whole lot of interest in that.

It is a truth, of course, but it hardly matters. Such an account is not difficult for natural scientists to render, given the close relationship between the natural sciences on the one hand, and the good of physical health and the means of life-saving, -securing or -enhancing technology. Nor is it very difficult for social and human scientists, given the direct bearing of their disciplines on the psychological health of individuals and the social health of societies.

Explaining why the arts and humanities matter, however, is more difficult. Among the doctoral dissertations in the Humanities being examined in Oxford in was one on the function and status of landscape painting in late 16th- and 17th-century Rome, another on the Mamluk historiography of the Fatimids, and another entitled Flirting with fame: Byron and his female readers.

Now no doubt these topics fascinate those whose hobby it is to study them, but why exactly should they matter to anyone else? And why should public money be spent on them — as opposed to, say, being spent on more helicopters for our hard-pressed troops in Afghanistan? To ask a scholar of history, literature or theology to explain what he does matters is one thing.

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To ask that he demonstrate its usefulness is quite another. Mill moral philosophy. Compared to this rich, colourful and dignifying vision of human flourishing, our modern utilitarian view is pinched, anaemic and degrading. This secularised Protestant view is embedded in the fate of other words in the English language.

Disappointingly, the Oxford English Dictionary yielded up no oxygen for that wild speculation. This is not quite as true in other Western countries.

Stefan Collini

European Journal of Education, 41 2 , — Why not demand greater accountability and tangible results from a failing education system? Heidegger on ontotheology: Technology and the politics of education. Want to Read saving…. The practice of medicine, of course, serves the good of physical health. New German Critique, 41 , 3—

In Ireland, at least since the late 19th century, national identity defined itself over and against the ruthless, materialistic utilitarianism of the globalising British empire. Which might go some way towards explaining why every second person I met when I was teaching at Trinity College Dublin seemed to be writing and publishing poetry. Ireland, then, furnishes some hope that, even in this day and age, a national society can publicly recognise human and social goods that are beyond measurement.

Why are these not just trivial, otiose ornaments? Why are they not self-indulgent recreations sponging off the public purse? Why do they matter for human and public flourishing? There are the questions.

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So what are the answers? Let me inaugurate two of lines of thought.

Publishing with a purpose

First, one valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions. Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently.

What Are The Best Universities In The World?

Reviewers of the recent, Common Reading: Critics, Historians,Publics , described him as 'one of Britain's finest essaysists and writers. Du kanske gillar.

Who are universities for?

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